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Pastors and políticos

Despite their diverse theological leanings, evangelicals are wielding an Olympic-size impact on Brazilian politics

Pastors and políticos

The replica of Solomon’s Temple in São Paulo, Brazil.(Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images)

Associated Press/Photo by Victor R. Caivano

The March for Jesus in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Ronaldo Schmeidt/AFP/Getty Images

The National Guard controls crowds at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela.

If Edir Macedo wants to beat Brazilian traffic on the way to a preaching gig, the celebrity bishop can swoop over the sprawling slums of São Paulo in a private helicopter and touch down on a waiting helipad atop a $300 million replica of Solomon’s Temple built by his own denomination.

Welcome to a Sunday in Brazil.

While economic peril and political upheaval bear down on Brazil during the 2016 Summer Olympics, things look financially prosperous for leaders in the “Universal Church of the Kingdom of God”—a Pentecostal movement founded by Macedo in 1977.

Macedo—once dubbed “the billionaire bishop”—started the church in a former funeral parlor in Rio de Janeiro, the colossal seaside city hosting this year’s Olympics. Four decades later, Macedo has franchised his prosperity-gospel message into hundreds of affiliated groups around the world and owns the second-largest television station in Brazil.

In 2014, Macedo christened the oversized replica of Solomon’s Temple—a massive structure that includes a 10,000-seat auditorium and stands at least twice as tall as the biblical version. Brazilian media reported the temple’s final plans included a conveyor belt to whisk donations from the altar to a secure room.

Contrast that with a small Presbyterian church in the capital city of Brasília, where Breno Macedo (no relation to the bishop) serves as associate pastor. Here, you won’t find flashing lights, and you won’t hear about exorcisms or promises of financial prosperity in exchange for donations.

Most Sundays at the small church include a simple service of hymns, prayers, preaching, and sacraments. It’s a stark contrast to the far more charismatic model in many other congregations, but Breno Macedo says steady church growth has come from Brazilians eager to hear sound teaching rooted in biblical doctrine.

The growth of both churches is part of a Protestant wave sweeping across the most populous—and still predominantly Catholic—nation in South America.

Beyond numerical increases, Brazil’s Protestants—including evangelicals—are experiencing success on another front as well: They’re wielding considerable influence on Brazil’s unwieldy political process.

When the country’s legislators voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff in May, members of a group of some 94 evangelical lawmakers known as “the Bible bloc” helped lead the effort. Rousseff, a leader in the socialist-infused Workers’ Party, faces an impeachment trial in August on charges she covered up budget shortfalls in her last reelection bid.

Scores of other corruption scandals have plagued other prominent Brazilian lawmakers, and nearly a million Brazilians marched in the streets this spring to call for Rousseff’s impeachment. The carnival-like atmosphere included a huge parade-style balloon of Rousseff wearing a mask and a sash emblazoned with the word “Impeachment.”

Indeed, as Republicans and Democrats in the United States hold their political contests during one of the most turbulent election seasons in recent history, a remarkable moment is unfolding in the America to the south.

Brazilians suffering under the strain of rampant government corruption and deepening economic woes are pushing back against nearly 14 years of socialist-leaning ideology to demand a more accountable system. And evangelicals—from Pentecostals to Presbyterians—are a significant part of the push.

How these Brazilian Christians of varied theological stripes view each other and their role in politics offers the drama of an Olympic sprint. But for those at the starting line, the realities of long-term political and spiritual reform may require the endurance of a far more grueling marathon.

FOR AN IDEA OF THE CULTURAL AND POLITICAL STEW brewing in Brazil, visit the teeming city of São Paulo in May.

If Rio de Janeiro is the famed destination for a decadent carnival celebrating Mardi Gras each spring, São Paulo is the epicenter for one of the world’s largest gay pride festivals celebrating homosexuality each May.

This year, the city streets overflowed with as many as 2 million revelers. Some carried signs calling for the country’s Congress to pass a gender identity law favoring transgender citizens. Others hoisted Bibles to protest evangelical congressmen opposed to gay marriage.

Days earlier, the same streets brimmed with an estimated 350,000 evangelical Christians walking in a massive “March for Jesus.” The annual event draws celebrity pastors, singers, and merchants galore, but its size also signals the growing influence of evangelicals in a country with both Catholic predominance and left-wing pressures.

In 2013, Pew Research Center reported that since 1970 the percentage of Catholics in Brazil had fallen from 92 percent of the population to 65 percent. The portion identifying as Protestant had grown from 5 percent to 22 percent.

What accounts for the huge shift? Part of the answer is explosive expansion in the Assemblies of God in the 1980s. Operation World says the Pentecostal denomination is the largest evangelical group in Brazil, with more than 15 million members reported by church leaders. “Billionaire bishop” Macedo’s denomination comes next, with more than 3.5 million members in Brazil alone.

The Pentecostal movement in Brazil is as varied as it is large: Some churches are conservative in theology. Some are liberal. Many embrace a form of health-and-wealth gospel that teaches God will give financial prosperity to members who give enough money and have enough faith.

The teaching has had remarkable success in a nation with a 20 percent poverty rate and with thousands of citizens packed into dense slums with narrow roads and houses stacked onto craggy hillsides.

For years, many churches in Brazil taught that Christians should focus on spiritual tasks and remain quiet on politics. But as Pentecostalism grew under the influence of U.S. televangelists like Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts in the 1980s, some church leaders called for Christians to engage in political pursuits as well.

Today, some 94 legislators, including multiple pastors, constitute an evangelical voting bloc that consistently opposes measures to expand abortion (it’s still illegal in most cases) and gay marriage (it’s legal, but under appeal at Brazil’s Supreme Court). Pastors routinely speak about politics from the pulpit.

Some have compared the burgeoning movement to the “Moral Majority” launched by the late Jerry Falwell Sr. in the United States when evangelical involvement in politics boomed in the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, at least a handful of current Brazilian pastors attended Liberty University, the school Falwell founded in Lynchburg, Va.

While some comparisons are valid, they come with notable differences: Brazilian evangelicals aren’t tied to a single party (they belong to several), and while they often back particular candidates, they tend to focus on what they can accomplish in opposing presidential or judicial decrees.

Still, some of the potential pitfalls remain, including the dangers of power in a government rife with corruption. Eduardo Cunha, the leading evangelical lawmaker pushing for the president’s impeachment this spring, faces charges he pocketed millions of dollars from Brazil’s state-run oil company. Cunha denies the charges, but the Supreme Court ordered him to leave his post as speaker of the lower house of Congress while the case proceeds.

At least one evangelical who’s not a politician has vowed to continue pursuing the battle against corruption. Deltan Dallagnol is an evangelical who launched the criminal investigation that has sunk a slew of politicians over the last two years.

The saga began when the prosecutor launched an investigation of a money-laundering scheme at the state-owned oil company and later expanded it to include more than 70 political leaders and corporate giants accused of bribery, misuse of public funds, and tax evasion. “We have an environment that is corrupt,” he told The Guardian. “It’s endemic. It has spread like a metastasis of cancer, so this case could take us anywhere.”

As politicians wait to see where such investigations take them, Christians across the spectrum are pondering their place in politics: What do Brazil’s minority of non-Pentecostal Protestants think about the church and politics, and how do Christians with major theological differences work together?

BRENO MACEDO, the Presbyterian pastor in Brasília, is helping his flock engage politics by educating them. A graduate of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in South Carolina, Macedo says he’s led studies of works such as Wayne Grudem’s writings on a biblical view of politics.

While some church members still think Christians should stay quiet about political matters, Macedo says it’s critical to teach biblical principles in a culture still saturated with Marxist ideas.

“We teach our young people that you can’t wear your Christian hat on the Lord’s Day and your secular hat at the university,” he says. “We’re trying to teach them how to think biblically.”

What about some of the evangelical legislators pressing conservative ideas in government but promoting problematic theology in church? Macedo says he can separate the two. He doesn’t agree with pastors using religious leverage to obtain a political position, he says: “But it’s exactly those guys that are a stone in the shoe of the Marxists.”

These days, Marxists in Brazil have more of a boulder than a stone in their shoe.

The Workers’ Party with its Marxist-influenced ideas is limping badly following the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff and a raft of corruption investigations against party officials. The economy is limping too. After 14 years of the party’s rule, the country is experiencing a deep recession and a jobless rate above 10 percent.

Much of the economic woes come from government-owned industries and massive entitlements. Edwin Gutierrez, a fund manager, told The Wall Street Journal that 90 percent of Brazil’s budget is entitlement spending. Those entitlements have been popular among many of Brazil’s poor, but the system is cracking under its own weight, and corruption charges against officials threaten to bust the breach wide open.

The public’s dissatisfaction spilled out into a repudiation of Rousseff’s government this spring. What will replace it isn’t clear (her vice president is acting as president until her trial is over), but similar dissatisfactions have appeared among some churchgoers, as faulty theology failed to deliver easy prosperity.

Franklin Ferreira is a founder and professor at Martin Bucer Seminary in Brazil and pastor of a Reformed Baptist church. In a Skype interview from his office in São José dos Campos, Ferreira said the liberation theology movement of the 1970s and 1980s first promised freedom from poverty through political change. When it didn’t deliver, many poor people turned to the prosperity gospel, which offered financial wealth through giving.

“The prosperity gospel, with all its serious problems, offered a God bigger than the god of liberation theology,” he says. “A God that is powerful enough to intervene in their situation and give them what they want.”

But when that kind of automatic formula inevitably fails, Ferreira says, some Brazilians turn to deeper biblical teaching. Ferreira’s teaching in the church focuses on a different kind of prosperity: the spiritual prosperity that comes from years of biblical discipleship in all areas of life—church, family, work, and government.

At the seminary, Ferreira’s teaching includes a Christian view of politics. He quotes from authors like Samuel Rutherford, Francis Schaeffer, and Abraham Kuyper. He recently wrote a book called Against the Idolatry of the State and warns against the idea of government as a savior.

He says the work has been a success, though not with everyone: “People from the left wing—they hate my book.”

Tiago Santos, his colleague at the seminary and editor at the evangelical publishing house Fiel, says he’s encouraged by evangelicals in Congress resisting a leftist agenda, but he’s also careful to repudiate their sometimes problematic theology in the church: “The fact is, we’re fighting a battle on two fronts.”

The ongoing exposé of Brazilian government corruption suggests at least a temporary victory on the political front. But like some of the Olympic contests in Rio, these battles in politics and church call for long-term endurance. It’s the kind of work, says Breno Macedo, that could last a lifetime: “Either we need to see a revival, or it will take a hundred years.”

State of chaos

Just north of Brazil, another remarkable moment is unfolding in another South American nation, but this one is fraught with suffering and sorrow: Venezuela teeters on the brink of collapse three years after its infamous Socialist president, Hugo Chávez, died while in power.

Sliding oil prices and years of massive government mismanagement have plunged the nation into economic calamity, with inflation soaring to 180 percent—the world’s highest rate. That means long lines for food and basic supplies that stores can barely keep stocked. Shortages have fostered a black market with inflated prices for needy families running out of daily bread.

In mid-July, President Nicolás Maduro put armed forces in charge of the nation’s food supply, further militarizing the beleaguered nation. Many citizens are calling for Maduro’s ouster, but he clings to power, even as looting and violence swell. If that violence spills over into the streets, some fear dangerous clashes between hungry citizens and armed troops.

Brazilians have taken notice. Brazilian pastor Tiago Santos believes it’s one of the reasons citizens spilled into the street of his country to demand their own president’s impeachment: “They don’t want to be another Venezuela.” –J.D.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.